October 23, 2012

Gopnik: America's historic prosperity = "white people with guns owning a giant chunk of well-irrigated, very well-harbored real estate"

Adam Gopnik has an eloquent review in The New Yorker called "Faces, Places, Spaces: The Renaissance of Geographic History" of a few books on the importance of geography, including Robert Kaplan's latest. 

This paragraph by Gopnik will seem less novel to iSteve readers than to most others:
The new space history has one great virtue. It forces upon historians, the amateurs we all are as well as the pros we read, a little more humility. American prosperity looks like a function of virtue and energy, but the geographic turn tells us that it’s mostly a function of white people with guns owning a giant chunk of well-irrigated, very well-harbored real estate off the edge of the World Island, bordering a hot land on one side and a cold one on the other. Really, you can’t miss. Our geographic truth enters our songs and sagas even if it evades our sermons: O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain; this land is my land, from the redwood forest to the gulf-stream waters. The geographic truth beneath our prosperity is as naturally sung by our bards as the olive oils and wine-dark sea at the heart of Greek culture were sung by theirs.

This is basically Benjamin Franklin's argument from Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind that life in America is happier than in Europe because the population density is lower and thus land costs are lower and wages are higher, so it makes sense to limit immigration. Speculating freely, I'd guess the chain of influence goes to Adam Gopnik from his sister, cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik, from cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, from me, from Old Ben.

I'd have some specific criticisms of Gopnik's essay, but it's really much better than the average, so you owe it to yourself to read it. My impression is of an urban Ashkenazi intellectual groping in good faith to recover some knowledge and wisdom lost when people without much connection to land came to dominate highbrow discourse.

44 comments:

William Boot said...

Right. Anyone would have created an amazing civilization with this much good land.

That's why the Indians had the highest per capita living standards in the world and created such an amazing civilization on that very same land.

Geoff Matthews said...

I'm going to have to disagree with ol' Ben Franklin a bit. Population density in Europe is much higher today than it was in his, but life in Europe is much happier today than it was in his day.
Population density without rule of law, and without the technological factors that make it possible (modern sanitation & plumbing, industrial food production, inexpensive energy) would be pure misery for the poor. Today, with those factors, is just boring and demoralizing.

chucho said...

Gopnik gets tons of crap from Shawn-era NYer snobs and he is indeed an unrepentant leftie, but I still admire his writing.

Speaking of the NYer, James Wood did his best to take down the new Wolfe book in a recent issue.

Anonymous said...

My impression is of an urban Ashkenazi intellectual groping in good faith to recover some knowledge and wisdom lost when people without much connection to land came to dominate highbrow discourse.

Oh yes, Steve Sailer, man of the land. Dispensing his wisdom to us from his family farm in Los Angeles.

Anonymous said...

Gobineau has an entire chapter in his book on races explaining why the poverty or wealth or location of the land doesn't account for a people's success. Among various examples given are the Finns vs. the modern Germans in the area around Berlin, ancient vs. modern Egypt, ancient vs. modern Jerusalem (sorry antisemites, the father of racism respected the Jews), the fact that ancient Greece was basically empty rock, etc.

If you want something even more relevant, read the chapter of Tocqueville where he compares the natural wealth and location of north and south America, to show that natural wealth and location can't make a nation prosperous or not. (South America in many ways has better natural wealth and location than the US).

Anonymous said...

"When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe."

- Thomas Jefferson

Anonymous said...

"The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich."

- Thomas Paine

Anonymous said...

Right. Anyone would have created an amazing civilization with this much good land.

That's why the Indians had the highest per capita living standards in the world and created such an amazing civilization on that very same land.


Civilization turned the thick cedar forests of Mesopotamia into the Iraqi desert. Half the topsoil of the American Midwest has been lost in only a few short years.

But the civilizations centered in those regions had/are having a grand ol' time -- while it lasted/lasts.

Anonymous said...

Right. Anyone would have created an amazing civilization with this much good land.

Well Gopnik did say white people specifically, so props to him for that.

FredR said...

I don't know why they keep having Gopnik review history and social science books given that he explicitly stated in his review of Niall Ferguson's "Civilization" that we can't derive any predictive lessons from past events/history.

Matthew said...

"America is happier than in Europe because the population density is lower and thus land costs are lower and wages are higher."

High population densities necessitate government intrusion in individual lives. They leave people with less autonomy.

"That's why the Indians had the highest per capita living standards in the world and created such an amazing civilization on that very same land."

Right. Low population density means savage hunter-gatherers, and high population density makes Bangladesh the richest, most enlightened country in this corner of the galaxy.

The difference between your example and mine? There is no danger of returning to pre-Columbian population densities and the hunter-gatherer lifetsyles that go with it, but there is every danger of turning into something like Bangladesh.

When I was a kid my father on a road trip pointed out how very empty so much of the United States was, and how the zero population folks were absurd to suggest we'd ever run out of room. Even then I was smart enough to point out to him that it takes a lot of "empty" land to support our suburban lifestyle which he seemed to think required only the half acre or so on which our home stood.

Anonymous said...

Rather than a slow, moldering evil, with a horrific climax, Snyder sees twelve years of total war. Stalin starves Ukrainians to death on a genocidal scale; Ukrainians then aid in the execution of Jews (identifying them with the Communists, who had caused the great famine);...

I wonder what would have led the Ukrainians to identify them with the communists who had caused the great famine.

Beecher Asbury said...

American prosperity looks like a function of virtue and energy, but the geographic turn tells us that it’s mostly a function of white people with guns owning a giant chunk of well-irrigated, very well-harbored real estate off the edge of the World Island, bordering a hot land on one side and a cold one on the other. Really, you can’t miss.

First, is it just white people, or a more specific group of white people?

Second, why is the cold land that borders America wealthy too?

Third, what about the other piece of New World real estate that is rather hot with a harsh climate that seems to be rather wealthy? I think it is called Australia.

Fourth, aren't there several other countries in the New World who have favorable climate and geographical features, yet wealth eludes them? I think there are called Latin America.

It was not an accident of guns and geography that made America (Canada and Oz too) wealthy. It was Anglo Saxons and their culture, who settled and founded nations in diverse climes, that created the most sought after places to live.

Cochlear Implant Fiend said...

" Geoff Matthews said...

I'm going to have to disagree with ol' Ben Franklin a bit. Population density in Europe is much higher today than it was in his, but life in Europe is much happier today than it was in his day."

Yeah but its living on borrowed time- they've maintained their Eloi lifestyle by relying on American military protection and putting their grandchildren in the hock to pay for a life more lavish than what the sweat of their brow will pay.

Harry T said...

"
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'My impression is of an urban Ashkenazi intellectual groping in good faith to recover some knowledge and wisdom lost when people without much connection to land came to dominate highbrow discourse.'

Oh yes, Steve Sailer, man of the land. Dispensing his wisdom to us from his family farm in Los Angeles."

Yes, as opposed to the sage like wisdom we've been receiving from Anonymous #453216a and his 1 entry

Anonymous said...

Five degrees of separation that's got to be some kind of record for most degrees of separation from a sailer article in an American periodical. What did people write about before you were radioactive?

Anonymous said...

If Franklin were alive today you'd have at least a post a month laughing at this pudgy self-promoting hedonist. Really and truly was the Malcolm Gladwell of his day. Granted his day was alot grander than ours.

Maya said...

Is the guy's name actually Gopnik, or is that his trolling pseudonym?

Are there articles floating around written by people named Wigger, Chav and Guido as well?

Fishbu said...

Re: Ben Franklin's analysis. I don't really buy the argument that deep down everyone hates cities and would rather live as some farmer in the middle of nowhere. It is basically the naturalistic fallacy except replace "primitives" with farmers. The overwhelming trend of human history is increasing urbanization. De-urbanization and depopulation is associated with civilization decline.

Europeans are not emigrating in huge waves anymore despite W.E. being more dense today than it ever was. Western Europe was overcrowded in the 1700s because limited technology pushed them against their Malthusian limits. With modern medicine, transportation, hygiene, and other innovations a single city could suddenly support a much denser population without impacting quality of life.

The idea that people will have smaller families when they have less space is correct, but people aren't inherently unhappy in large densities. Again, quite the opposite based on trend of migration to cities.

hbd chick said...

"...knowledge and wisdom lost when people without much connection to land came to dominate highbrow discourse."

i also blame this for why people are/can be so dumb about genetically inherited stuff. farmers breeding cows/sheep/horses (and having a dozen or so kids) knew that there were innate differences between individuals -- and that you could breed different traits in and out of a population. a society full of real estate agents and apple store experts just ain't gonna know those things (and will be easily persuaded that the opposite -- or anything! -- is true).

Anonymous said...

@ Matthew

Bangladesh sucks because it's full of stupid, primitive, incompetent brown people, not because it's dense

hailtoyou said...

Success of Whites throughout history can be explained so simply:

Two parts dumb-luck/chance/coincidence, one part Pure Evil. (The Michael-Moore Left inverts the portions).

A century hence, some Eric Holder of the future will hunt down any White person who believes that there is anything special about his race's achievements. This future Multicultural Hero will commit the exposed bigot to an institution for delusional racists. (Call is the James Watson Institute for Hate-Crazed Racist Rehabilitation).

sunbeam said...

I think Geography definitely plays a role, it's not just the people.

People from the Midwest have always seemed very competent and hardworking to me.

But North Dakota and Nebraska aren't exactly centers of world trade.

The modern era is a different, but in the old days for an area to become something economically powerful you needed to be able to grow enough food to support large cities, and most importantly have a transport network for the place.

Refrigeration and easy long distance transport have changed a lot about the food situation, but even with all the transportation changes I can't think of too many large cities that aren't located by rivers or navigable waterways.

As far as the rest of what this guy wrote, he used about 10 times as many words as he needed to communicate his point. I think I've heard a lot of his ideas in bars over the years anyway, so it was kind of a repeat.

How does this Kaplan dude keep getting published? I read a book or article by him in the 90's called The Coming Anarchy. Seems like the Anarchy has always been pretty much a constant though.

Anonymous said...

Again, quite the opposite based on trend of migration to cities.

Migration towards cities happens when people become dispossessed of rural subsistence assets. This was true during the Clearances and is true today in places like China, where the gov't evicts farmers off their land.

Anonymous said...

The overwhelming trend of human history is increasing urbanization. De-urbanization and depopulation is associated with civilization decline.

The overwhelming trend of human history has been that most people don't have any say in the matter with respect to urbanization. People don't urbanize. People that don't own land get urbanized.

De-urbanization and depopulation associate with civilization decline because civilization is simply population structure organized into cities. That's all that civilization is.

hailtoyou said...

Fishbu wrote:
"I don't really buy the argument that deep down everyone hates cities and would rather live as some farmer in the middle of nowhere"

Different groups tend towards different ideal densities, at which they feel most comfortable.

Yes, people live in urban areas now, because that is where the money is. Yet density has never been particularly desired by Europeans, especially those from the Germanic core. Think of high-population Germany (82 million pop.): Its biggest city is a mere 3.5 million... There is an aversion towards hyperdensity. Likewise in the USA, this may explain suburbanization (and now exurbanization) to some extent -- though the Race Problem is a biggest factor, surely.

Sociologists noticed a century ago or more that the Jews of Europe lacked this aversion, and urbanized rapidly and much more easily than Europeans were able to. Most Polish cities were heavily Jewish, and some even outright-majority Jewish in the interwar period, for example.

Melendwyr said...

"That's why the Indians had the highest per capita living standards in the world and created such an amazing civilization on that very same land."

Actually, they did pretty well, given the extremely limited resources they had - don't underestimate the power of animal husbandry.

Also keep in mind that the most developed civilizations in the Americas made the cities of Europe look like dingy, low-population slums - and they did it without metal, too.

Steve Sailer said...

Ben Franklin was about as urban as an American of his day could be. He was born next to the docks in Boston.

When he became ambassador to France he played up the backwoods sage / noble savage shtick to appeal to French fantasies in the Rousseau Era, and it was a hit of historic proportions, but he was a dapper townsman by most inclinations.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

I can't think of too many large cities that aren't located by rivers or navigable waterways.

Ooh, sounds like fun challenge to the peanut gallery here.

I'll start with Atlanta Ga. The Chattahoochee River which flows through it is only navigable up to Columbus Ga.

Auntie Analogue said...

So geography is a big factor and so are ideas. Which explains why Borders bookstores slammed into liquidation? Do you wonder if the chain had any shops in, say, Kashmir? Afghanistan? The West Bank? Or Ciudad Juarez?


MUSICAL INTERLUDE:

Everybody looks so ill at ease,
so distrustful so displeased;
running down the table I see a borderline;
like a barbed wire fence,
strung tight, strung tense,
prickling with pretense: a borderline.

Why are you smirking at your friend?
Is this to be the night
when all well-wishing ends?
All crediblity revoked,
thin skin, thick jokes:
can we blame it on the smoke,
this borderline?

Every bristling shaft of pride,
church or nation, team or tribe,
every notion we subscribe to is just a borderline.
Good or bad, we think we know,
as if thinking makes things so,
all convictions grow up along a borderline.

Smug in your jaded expertise
you scathe the wonder world
and you praise barbarity.
In this illusionary place,
this scared hard-edged rat race,
all liberty is laced with borderlines.

Every income, every age
every fashion-plated rage
every measure every gauge
creates a borderline.
Every stone thrown through glass,
every mean streets kickass,
every swan caught on the grass
will draw a borderline.

You snipe so steady you snap so snide,
so ripe and ready to diminish and deride.
Oh, you're so quick to condescend,
my opinionated friend,
all you deface, all you defend
is just a borderline.
Just a borderline
Another borderline
Just a borderline.

- "Borderline" Joni Mitchell -


I can't agree with some of the lyrics' more Eloi viewpoints; but the song, as she sings it on her album 'Turbulent Indigo,' is (like her earliest, best works) hauntingly lovely; so that despite the lyrics' willful ignorance of certain, shall we say, realities, I like to think kindly of the words as an earnest plea for civility.

And now for that geography-defying discussion of Climate Change...!

commonwealth contrarian said...

Are surbuban sections in the US shrinking in the same way they are in Australia and New Zealand?

In 1950s New Zealand, a quarter acrche, was considered a reasonable-sized section for a mid-income family. Today that is considered very large, and only accessible to high income families in semi-rural areas.

And of course rules and regulations have increased a lot to.

Anonymous said...

Really, we are all back to Malthus - one of the earliest and greatest economists, and in fact one of the very few economists I have time for.
Acis test: Show me a Malthus denier, and I'll show you a an unperspicacious charlatan.
The carrying capacity of an land is a function of the bounty of its natural resources, rainfall, fertile land etc. Look at how densely populated Egypt, with its Nile Valley is, and sparsely populated equal areaed Libya is, and the fact that Libya has very little water. For the time being ignore the quibblers invoking 'the Netherlands' - that can be explained away, time willing.

jody said...

The Gopniks are not a very attractive clan.

Simon in London said...

It's the same as Jared Diamond - people just happen to live in good places, and that makes them successful.

Of course the Amerindians didn't do much with North America. White Americans live there because their ancestors had the energy and ability to conquer the continent.

sunbeam said...

Ex Submarine Officer wrote:

"I can't think of too many large cities that aren't located by rivers or navigable waterways.

Ooh, sounds like fun challenge to the peanut gallery here.

I'll start with Atlanta Ga. The Chattahoochee River which flows through it is only navigable up to Columbus Ga."

You can add Las Vegas and Denver. Phoenix too, I guess. But I'll stand by my premise though it is hard to compare things from the past to today.

How big were they in 1865? Atlanta is a good example of a city spawned by railroads. Vegas one by the highway system (and the gambling).

But most large cities grew from a kernel that was in place because of features that caused it to be a city before the age of rail even.

Anonymous said...

If geography and land is still so important then why was Argentina 100 years so rich but now so middle income?

Land is so no longer tied to prosperity. It's about a country's PISA scores. Just look at that island called Singapore.

Mr. Anon said...

"Ex Submarine Officer said...

""I can't think of too many large cities that aren't located by rivers or navigable waterways.""

Ooh, sounds like fun challenge to the peanut gallery here.

I'll start with Atlanta Ga. The Chattahoochee River which flows through it is only navigable up to Columbus Ga."

Phoenix - an obvious one.

Bill said...

Are surbuban sections in the US shrinking in the same way they are in Australia and New Zealand?

In 1950s New Zealand, a quarter acrche, was considered a reasonable-sized section for a mid-income family. Today that is considered very large, and only accessible to high income families in semi-rural areas.


I think so, based only on casual observation. New suburban developments in the US mid-atlantic in, say, the 1980s tended to feature 1/2 acre to 1 acre lots. Now they tend to feature 1/4 acre lots. Also, "semi-detached" houses seem to be making a comeback.

Anonymous said...

Maya said...Is the guy's name actually Gopnik, or is that his trolling pseudonym?

Are there articles floating around written by people named Wigger, Chav and Guido as well?


Lol! When I saw 'Gopnik' - I was wondering where Steve was going with it - Russian chavs built America.

Maya said...

"Lol! When I saw 'Gopnik' - I was wondering where Steve was going with it - Russian chavs built America"

Yup! When I first glanced at the title, I read something akin to that too: "Wigger- our most precious natural resource".

David Davenport said...

History of Atlanta from Wikipedia:

The history of Atlanta dates back to 1836, when Georgia decided to build a railroad to the U.S. Midwest ( Midwest? No, a railroad hub for the central South. -- DD ) and a location was chosen to be the line's terminus. The stake marking the founding of "Terminus" was driven into the ground in 1837 (called the Zero Mile Post). In 1839 homes and a store were built there and the settlement grew. Between 1845 and 1854 rail lines arrived from four different directions, and the rapidly growing town quickly become the rail hub for the entire Southern United States. During the American Civil War, Atlanta, as a distribution hub, became the target of a major Union campaign, and in 1864 Union General Sherman's troops set on fire and destroyed the city's assets and buildings, save churches and hospitals. After the war the population grew rapidly, as did manufacturing, while the city retained its role as a rail hub. Coca-Cola was launched here in 1886 and grew into an Atlanta-based world empire. ...

My understanding is that Atlanta, orginally named Terminus, was created ex nihilo by I-can't remember-the-name railroad Co. when the railroad decided to establish a rail hub for the central South.

Terminus wasn't settled by pioneers. The name was later changed to Atlanta because "Atlanta" is so much more elegant and allusive. Nascent real estate developer thinking ...

Anonymous said...

Ben Franklin was about as urban as an American of his day could be. He was born next to the docks in Boston.

When he became ambassador to France he played up the backwoods sage / noble savage shtick to appeal to French fantasies in the Rousseau Era, and it was a hit of historic proportions, but he was a dapper townsman by most inclinations.


Good point. He was born in Boston and then moved to Philly. And he was fat and had bad eyesight. He wasn't really outdoorsy.

Anonymous said...

Largest 100 landowners in the US

http://fayranches.com/sites/default/files/land-report-2012-fay-ranches-for-sale.pdf

Anonymous said...

keep in mind that the most developed civilizations in the Americas made the cities of Europe look like dingy, low-population slums


No, they did not. Not unless you're deliberately picking out "dingy, low-population slums" to represent Europe.